It’s difficult to spot the logical fallacies politicians use all the time. Many are educated and trained on how best to answer a question or phrase an argument. Often, that means using tricks of the trade with thinly veiled logical fallacies. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anyone any good. To make sound decisions, people need sound arguments. Making decisions off of bad logic usually leads to terrible consequences. Regardless, all politicians know logical fallacies are effective in fooling the electorate and dodging uncomfortable questions that can hurt their campaigns. They’ll never stop using them, so you might as well learn and know how to spot them. Put on your thinking caps, here are 25 Logical Fallacies Politicians Use More Than You Realize.
(And don’t worry; we cover politicians across the spectrum.)
The fallacy of equivocation is when someone states a phrase of an argument in an ambiguous way with one meaning in one part of the argument and another meaning in another part of the argument. Donald Trump has used this countless times, often contradicting himself, in hopes he’ll confuse and appeal to everyone. For instance, when accusing Hillary Clinton’s donors of tax evasion he said, “So do all of her donors, or most of her donors. I know many of her donors. Her donors took massive tax write-offs.”
Fallacy of Sunk Costs
Politicians will often plead to the fallacy of sunk costs when a big investment has been placed into a certain project, arguing that since so much has already been invested, we need to see it through. Often, politicians will use this logic regarding war, including the Vietnam War, the War in Iraq, and Afghanistan. But, large investments in a bad project doesn’t justify putting more investments into a bad project.
Pronounced, “two-quo-quay” from the Latin for “you too,” this logical fallacy deflects arguments away by trying to blame their opponent of the same thing. When accused of something, politicians use this fallacy to call out hypocrisy, but the fallacy doesn’t answer the initial argument or question. For instance, when Donald Trump was asked what he thought of the Pope saying he wasn’t a Christian, Trump replied, “And he also talked about having a wall as not Christian, and he’s got an awfully big wall at the Vatican.”
This logical fallacy argues that if someone is intellectually slower, less ambitious, less aggressive, physically or emotionally less capable, then they deserve less in life and can be freely victimized by their supposed superiors. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump appealed to ableism by mocking a disabled reporter and saying Hilary Clinton had “lower energy” than Jeb Bush.
This logical fallacy is the Latin short form of “Post hoc, ergo protcor hoc,” or “after this, therefore because of this,” and it’s used all the time by politicians. Most often, the politicians out of power will argue if something is bad, the blame goes to the politician in power. For instance, Mitt Romney claimed because the economy is bad, it’s President Obama’s fault. Correlation does not mean causation.
Appeal to Fear
Also known as “scare tactics,” fear is a powerful motivator, which is why politicians have used it for centuries, but ultimately it’s bad logic and can lead to devastating results. Examples abound of politicians using this logical fallacy, including Adolf Hitler’s demonization of the Jewish people, McCarthyism’s Red Scare, fear tactics used after 9/11, and recently the fear tactics used against immigrants and refugees.
Begging the Question
This logical fallacy is a circular argument that says, “A is true because A is true.” It’s used all the time, but it can be tricky to detect. For instance, when arguing about the public option, Senator Kent Conrad said we can’t have a public option, because if we do, health care reform won’t get the votes from senators like him.
Circumstantial Ad Hominem
Also called “appeal to motive,” this fallacy is a type of ad hominem attack that questions the person’s motive. It tries to invalidate the person but doesn’t address the logical argument. It would be like if the discussion was about the oil industry and a politician said, “Of course, he supports more drilling. He used to be an oil CEO!”
This logical fallacy means, “it does not follow” and is a false argument with a conclusion that doesn’t follow the premise. For instance, in one of Donald Trump’s tweets, he wrote, “I did what was an almost an impossible thing to do for a Republican-easily won the Electoral College! Now Tax Returns are brought up again?” Releasing tax returns has nothing to do with winning the Electoral College.
Argumentum Ad Crumenam
Also known as “appeal to wealth,” this fallacy points to wealth or money as an indicator of truth, being right, or intelligence. In his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump frequently pointed to his wealth to prove he is both successful and trustworthy.
Don’t laugh. That’s the actual name of the fallacy. It’s a fairly simple fallacy of dismissing an argument, accusation, or statement as not worthy of serious consideration. When Barack Obama was asked to respond to Sarah Palin’s criticism of his pledge not to strike non-nuclear nations with nuclear weapons, he replied, “I really have no response to that. The last I checked Sarah Palin isn’t much of an expert on nuclear issues.”
From the Latin, “from a saying without qualification,” this is a sweeping generalization fallacy that doesn’t qualify its arguments. For instance, Ted Cruz, in an attack on his rival Donald Trump, claimed that Trump represented “New York Values” and that “Everybody understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal and pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage…and focus on money and the media.”
Pretty much everyone knows this fallacy is very common in politics. To make themselves look better, politicians will pick the facts that make themselves look better and ignore the contradicting evidence. For instance, the Democratic opponent of Sen. Richard Burr claimed that in 2012 Burr “voted no on the Violence Against Women Act.” While true in that case, it ignored the three other times Burr voted for its re-authorization.
This Latin phrase means, “argument from authority.” In the political world, it’s usually used toward politicians that came before, like Ronald Reagan or the Founding Fathers, or an expert group that does studies on a particular topic, but it never actually addresses the main issue. For instance, Barack Obama appealed to authority when he said, “You do not have to take my word for it. Just today, an independent, nonpartisan organization ran all the numbers on Gov. Romney’s plan. This wasn’t my staff. This wasn’t something we did. An independent group ran the numbers.”
Also known as the “appeal to pity” fallacy, this false argument distracts from the topic at hand by using emotion and making a case sympathetic. Barack Obama used this tactic in a speech to Congress to sway them on the gun debate, saying, “The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence –- they deserve a simple vote…They deserve a simple vote.”
Latin for “appeal to ignorance,” this logical fallacy states that a statement must be true if it can’t be proven false, or vice versa. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy was asked about 81 names and their connections to Communism. He claimed, “I do not have much information on this except the general statement of the agency that there is nothing in the files to disprove his communist connections.” Sadly, people bought into this fallacy at the time and ruined many lives.
This logical fallacy is also called “appealing to tradition” and typically argues that something must be true because it’s been that way for years. For instance, arguing against same-sex marriage, Rick Santorum stated, “Marriage is, and has always been through human history, a union of a man and woman.” Other politicians under the banner of the Tea Party Movement based their entire political movement on this logical fallacy, appealing to tradition and pointing back to the American founding fathers.
This logical fallacy tries to falsely equate one thing with another, usually generalizing, blowing things out of proportion, and attempting to demonize something or someone. It’s fairly easy to do, and sometimes can be complicated to discern because there’s a fine line between comparing and equating. Back during the days of the Soviet Union, for instance, American reactionaries equated the US with the Soviet Union because of the way political dissidents were treated.
Also called an “appeal to numbers,” this fallacy is similar to appealing to authority and occurs when someone points to sheer numbers of people to back up their claims or their own authority. In regards to health care, Bernie Sanders argues, “We need to join the rest of the industrialized world. We are the only major country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people as a right.”
Also called a false dichotomy, this fallacy suppresses options and evidence and looks something like this: Either A or B is true. A is not true. Therefore, B is true. George W. Bush famously stated in a speech to Congress that, “every nation has a decision to make. Either they are with us or with the terrorists.”
One of the most famous of all logical fallacies, it’s when someone distorts, exaggerates, or misrepresents another’s argument or position. It’s often used to confuse and distract the audience. Political attack ads regularly use these logical fallacies to smear an opponent. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed Hilary Clinton wanted “open borders,” twisting her position in a speech she gave to a Brazilian bank.
Also known as the domino fallacy, this false argument claims that once one action is taken, additional consequences will follow down a slippery slope into some unforeseen destruction. As such, it’s usually used as a fear tactic. A classic example of this was President Eisenhower’s “Domino Theory,” where he claimed that if one countries in Southeast Asia falls to Communism, the rest will follow.
With this fallacy, also called “argument by repetition,” someone will keep repeating the same argument or statement as if it were true over and over again. Of course, we all know endlessly repeating a statement or argument does not make it true. While this is a good advertising trick, it’s still a fallacy and one of Donald Trump’s favorites. In one of many examples, he stated, “To be honest, I inherited a mess…It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.”
Also called a decoy, the red herring fallacy draws attention away from the main topic, question, or argument, focusing instead on something else. Sometimes it can be thinly veiled and tricky to point out. In a 2000 debate, George W. Bush was accused of breaking his pledge to not raise taxes as Governor of Texas in 1994. He was asked if that accusation was accurate. Rather than addressing it, he said he provided the largest tax cut in Texas history in 1997.
Translating as “against the man,” this fallacy is an abusive personal attack on an individual rather than the logic or premise of the argument itself. It’s a popular, all-too common fallacy that has recently been used overwhelmingly by President Donald Trump. When speaking about Jeb Bush, Trump called him, “A basket case,” “Dumb as a rock!” “Loser,” and “Weak and low energy,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.